Egypt, Italy, United States...

Wednesday, 2004-12-29; 03:58:00

So much to do in a period so short...

Anyway, the previous entry notwithstanding... *ahem*... I'm still in Italy (well, I guess I can't really say "still" since I was in Egypt) for another few days. My return flight is on the 3rd of January, at 7 AM in the morning. Today's the 29th, so I only have 4 days left here. It's a shame, because I would like to stay here for another three months or so. However, I miss California a bit, and the courses that I need to take for geology and math aren't offered in Italy. I would've also liked to stay in Egypt for a bit longer and to go to Luxor to see the Valley of the Kings and other things that I didn't get to see. However, I have stuff to do back at Stanford, so I'm going to have to go back.

The weather is pretty bad here: it's really cloudy, and it's also really cold. Usually at night it gets below zero (that is, in Celsius, not Fahrenheit, so usually it's not cold enough to get snow). Supposedly it gets colder in January and February -- luckily I'm going to be returning to California soon; I don't like being cold that much. I know it's probably not really hot in California, but at least hot enough to wear shorts on some days (at least, I hope). Right at this moment, I'm on the train to Napoli to go see my friend who I met in New Mexico when I went for the volcanology field camp. It takes 5 hours to get down to Napoli since I didn't make the Eurostar train (the fastest one), so I have to take the slower train.

It's a bit difficult to get around from my nonna's house, because she lives in a city called Pescia outside of Firenze. Pescia is about 40 km from Firenze, but you have to take a bus from Pescia to Montecatini, and then you have to catch the connection to Firenze. It takes 30 minutes from Pescia to Montecatini, and an hour from Montecatini to Firenze, and sometimes the bus is late and you miss the connection. Also, after 7:15 PM, there aren't any connections at Montecatini anymore. So, today, I woke up late (I set my alarm for 8, but I woke up at 9), and so I took the bus from Pescia at 10:06. I arrived at Firenze right when the Eurostar train for Napoli was leaving (around 11:45). The next Eurostar was all full, so I had to take this train and so I'm losing the whole day on this train. Maybe it's for the better, though, because now I have some time to write a bit. :)


OK, about my trip to Egypt: it went great! I had a lot of fun, especially because I didn't have to stay in a hotel, and Nola's cats were really cute. If some of you don't know Nola, she was the computert teacher at Egan (the junior high to which I went). I didn't have her as a teacher, but we worked together on Egan's computers for about 5 years. Then she went to Egypt to teach, and I stayed at Egan for another 2 years or so. She leaves Egypt this June for who knows where, so I decided to come this year since I wouldn't have this opportunity again.

She has such a unique job -- she doesn't need to have much money to live down there in Egypt, since her job pays for her apartment, the electricity, gas, insurance; she only has to pay for the telephone, food, and personal stuff. (The apartment is all furnished for her too, so she doesn't even have to pay for those.) What's more is that she gets paid in American dollars, so she can do so much since the dollar is always worth more with respect to the Egyptian pound. When she first went to Egypt, it was about 3.5 Egyptian pounds to the dollar. Now it's about 6.2 pounds to the dollar.

As such, she's been able to go all over the world for her vacations, and she's done exactly that. She went to South America, Australia, Europe, North America (obviously), Mongolia and Russia, not to mention Antarctica (she has some spectacular pictures of the penguins down there). Now she's thinking about teaching abroad again someplace, and who knows where she'll go. Maybe I can visit her again. :)

Anyway, I took a lot of photos while in Egypt (about 500), and here are a few of them. Full captions are here (I had to do this because iPhoto 2 is stupid and I had a slow connection). There's photos of the camel market, the Manial Palace, the Nilometer, the felucca ride on the Nile, the trip to Alexandria, some mosques, some of Cairo, and some of Nola's cats (Egyptian cats!). I still haven't put up the ones of the pyramids, but I'll do that when I return to the states.

I wrote some notes about Egypt in an e-mail to friends and family, and I'll reprint it here. First, though, I'm going to let you know about a few observations that I didn't in that e-mail.

-- Usually, men can go wherever they want in Egypt, even in mosques, when women can't; for example, in some mosques like the ones at Alexandria, Nola had to enter through a different door than the usual one that I could go through. So I was able to see and to take photographs of things that Nola couldn't. However, on the metro, men can't get on the first two cars for some reason. Nola warned me of this, because one of her friends did just that, and there was a morbid silence while he was on. Then, at the next stop, some guards told him to get on a different car. It was funny because Nola said that when he left, all the women in the car started chatting a mile a minute about what had just happened.

-- When you walk along the streets of Cairo, you'll often see minivans stopping wherever to pick up people. They're not large like usual buses, so it seems a bit strange; they're like the minivans that you buy for a family. They all look the same, though, and they each do a specific route, according to Nola.

-- Most of the places that you go to, you end up paying a tip to somebody. A lot of the time, at touristy places, an Egyptian comes up to you and takes you to a hidden place or takes a picture of you in front of the monument. Then they ask for a bit of money -- a few pounds or something like that. A lot of times, though, they're unscrupulous, and they try to take a lot more (never ever open your wallet in front of them, because then they'll see that you have dollars or euros and they'll start asking for that).

The following are the previous notes that I made.


Here are the other notes I made:
As to answer Paul's questions (c.f. his e-mail.: "Any Anti-American feeling ata [sic] all? Have you seen the pyramids yet?"): no, I haven't really experienced any anti-American feelings, although sometimes I tell people I'm from Italy instead of the United States. I did talk with an Egyptian shopkeeper in Sharm El Sheikh about their feelings about Americans, and he said that mainly Egyptians think poorly of the American government, not American people. In general, people seem more interested in Americans than afraid or disdainful of them. And no, I haven't yet seen the pyramids. Tomorrow I'm going to finally visit the pyramids at Saqqara and at Giza (and of course will take pictures), and maybe I'll get to ride a camel for a bit. We're going to try and go into the big pyramid at Giza, but apparently they only allow 100 visitors in 3 times a day (300 visitors in total per day, for those of you that are mathematically challenged *coughmomcough*), so we'll see how that goes. The littler pyramids are less restrictive, so I'll definitely get to go inside at least one pyramid.
(In case any of you are wondering, Nola was the technology administrator at Egan Intermediate School when I was in 7th and 8th grade, and I continued to work at Egan with her while in high school. She lives with Shannon (a.k.a. Ms. McLaughlin), who was my science teacher in 7th grade -- unfortunately she wasn't able to be here for my visit.)
Some interesting notes about Egypt:
-- People use their horns ALL the time in Egypt when driving. But it's not like Italy or the U.S. where everybody uselessly honks when in traffic in an effort to make all other cars just disappear: Egyptians honk to warn pedestrians that they're coming up behind them, to warn buses or big cars that they're near, and taxis also use horn honking to get people's attention to see if they want a taxi ride.
-- You sometimes see donkey carts in some pretty random places. One time I was in a taxi turning onto a pretty big highway, and there was a donkey cart at the inside of the V where the "on-ramp" merged onto the highway, with no owner around. The donkey was just sitting there waiting for his owner to come back and enjoying the exhaust of all the cars. Egyptians just deal with things like that when they're driving. (Incidentally, Egyptian driving seems to be even worse than Italian driving -- as Nola says, lanes are a suggestion. Not that there are any accidents or anything, it's just that it's very hectic, but it works out in the end.)
-- Egypt is a very "service-oriented" society. You can often see workers from a shop delivering tea (i.e.: a fresh hot cup ready to drink) to whoever wants it, and apparently you can get almost anything delivered (including groceries, take-out food, etc.). In a similar vein, Egyptians really want you to like their country. (Case in point, our taxi driver in Alexandria went out of his way to take us to two mosques and personally accompany us inside after the first one we went to was closed. Often when you talk to them they welcome you and offer to help in any way they can, even if you just met them off the street.)
-- Not only do Egyptian kids like to say hello to you, but older people often do the same, including police officers in uniform. Sometimes it can get tiring, because you're trying to find some museum and a bunch of kids are following you and asking you the same 2 questions over and over. :)
(c.f.: previous e-mail about the swarm of kids -- reprinted here for your convenience: "The pics of the swarm of kids has a funny side-story: a big part of Egyptians like to 'practice' their English with you, so when you're walking down the street, you invariably hear a lot of 'HALLO!' or 'What's your name?"'or 'Where are you from?' or 'How are you?', and also you hear and see a lot of giggling from little kids. Of course, even if they hear your response, every kid has to ask you the same question. And lest you take out your digital camera even for a split sec, they all want to be in a picture.")
-- Here in Egypt there is usually a guard posted at every street corner. It's a bit disconcerting at first, because they often have rifles with them, and you pass by many when walking anywhere. They're usually just as friendly as normal Egyptians, though, and it's often convenient because you can ask them how to get somewhere (even at night, when they are also posted on guard). You'll often see them sitting behind metal barriers for protecting them in case they do end up in a firefight or something like that. Nola says that the Egyptian government cracks down on terrorism and crime very tightly since tourism is a big part of Egyptian society and income... after most terrorist activities (including the recent hotel bombing), tourism plummets and hurts the Egyptian economy, so it's in their best interest to crack down on it. In my experience so far, I've felt very safe and haven't had a bad experience.
-- The cost of food (and other stuff as well) is surprisingly cheap, especially coming from the United States or Europe. It's about 6.2 Egyptian pounds (LE) to each US dollar, and about 8.2 LE to each Euro. Koshari (a traditional Egyptian meal made of vermicelli noodles, two other types of pasta, tomato sauce, garbanzo beans, chickpeas, fried onions, rice, as well as some sort of spice mixture and/or vinegar if you like) usually costs 1-2 LE from street vendors, and tamaya (falafel sandwiches) can cost as low as 1 LE for two. As a result, you can usually have a filling lunch for under $1 USD. Nola says that food is subsidized by the Egyptian government, so while there is a substantial population that lives in poverty, nobody goes hungry. (Other things also are similary cheap -- metro tickets, one-time use tickets, cost 75 piastres (100 piastres = 1 LE), which is 12.5 cents. Taxi rides are pretty cheap -- a ticket from the airport to Nola's flat, which took about 30-45 minutes depending upon the traffic, costs at most 50 LE.) Of course, everything is always cheaper (relatively speaking) when you have a friend with whom you can stay.
-- Power outages are relatively rare. However, they're not like "American" power outages in that they usually last for only a few minutes (sometimes literally only one or two), and then the power comes back on and you resume your normal activities. Strange, but that's what happens. It happened twice in Sharm El Sheikh (where I went to snorkel at the Red Sea), and once late at night here in Cairo.
-- Also, there are free numbers which you can call with your computer to get free dialup internet access all around Egypt (which are also apparently sponsored by the government). You only pay for the phone call, which is cheap.
I have some underwater pictures from the snorkeling at Sharm El Sheikh, but since that's on ancient film technology, seeing those will have to wait until I get back to Italy or perhaps the U.S. I'm leaving for Rome (and by train to Florence) on Thursday at noon, although I would love to stay longer. (Heh, Nola has such a cush job -- she's been traveling everywhere, including but not limited to Antarctica -- she has some spectacular pictures of penguins playing on the ice. I'd love to stay here longer and have an experience like hers.)
Anyway, pictures from the pyramids, and some pictures from around here in Maadi Degla (the neighborhood of Cairo in which Nola lives) will be forthcoming.

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